From bread mould to penicillin, fungi are an integral part of our world. Although it might not be obvious, fungi are all around us. The Fungal kingdom is so big that in 2017 estimates suggest that there may be between 2.2 million to 3.8 million species in existence. What makes Fungi truly amazing is its diverse range of shapes, sizes, and colours. Fungi range from the microscopic to giant organisms. The Honey fungus is the biggest recorded homogeneous organism with genetically identical cells. It measures a gigantic 3.8 km in diameter! BBC Earth has a lovely article explaining more about this amazing phenomena.
Many fungi live in close relationship with animals, orchids and even other fungi. This role can be either be symbiotic or parasitic. Fungi play an integral role in breaking down organic matter. This helps to distribute nutrients in the environment. Thanks to fungi called yeast we can enjoy our favourite drinks such as beer and what would sushi would be without Soy sauce?
A culinary delight
The parts of Fungi that we are most familiar with, are their fruiting bodies or as we know them, mushrooms. In the past decade, an estimated 3.4 million tons of mushrooms have been cultivated for culinary consumption. In addition, there is no sign that this demand is slowing down. Ranging from the common button mushrooms to rare and pricey truffles, mushrooms have ingrained themselves in our culinary heritage.
Those that have been lucky enough to taste truffle claim that it is a singular experience. Truffles have baffled our minds since antiquity; with Plutarch even thinking that they were caused by lightning. The French started cultivating truffles commercially in the early 19th century armed with a better understanding of how Truffles grow. The secret lies in their symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain trees such as Oak and Hazel. In South Africa, there are attempts to establish ‘Truffle orchards’ in the Western Cape as the climate suits them perfectly.
There is a saying amongst mushroom hunters “You get two different kinds of mushroom hunters, brave or alive”. If you cannot identify them 100%, rather let them be. Luckily, for mushroom lovers, there is a way to grow your own mushrooms at home. Lately, mushroom kits have become widely available. Here at Hecker’s, we stock tasty oyster mushroom kits. Have a look at how easy it is to grow your own tasty Oyster mushrooms.
Fungi in the Garden
Some fungi can cause great damage to crops and plants if left unchecked. Fungal outbreaks in the garden are mainly associated with rainy weather. Cooler weather at night coupled with moisture and higher humidity provide the perfect conditions for fungal outbreaks. Some of the more common fungal diseases include:
- Powdery mildew looks like a thin, white film on top of the leaf. Many of our edible plants, such pumpkins, squashes and tomatoes are susceptible to outbreaks of powdery mildew. Roses, hydrangeas, and many other of our prized ornamental garden plants are also at risk.
- The bane of all tomato growers is blight. Blight starts of as chlorotic spots on the leaves that lead to the death of all plant tissue. This was the main cause of the great potato famine in Ireland mid-19th century
- Rust is a diverse family of fungus, which can be very host specific. An infection starts when a rust spore lands on the host plant, germinates and invades it.
- Dollar spot attacks mainly lawns and appears as sunken brown patches on the lawn. Dollar spot can ruin the appearance of your lawn. It mainly appears in spring and autumn when the evening temperatures are still low.
- Are your roses losing their leaves or just looking sad? Chances are good that they have been infected with black spot. It starts off as small black spots on the leaf, which in time leads to complete defoliation.
- A question that we are regularly asked in the nursery is “What can I spray to kill the mushrooms on my lawn?”. Mushrooms in your lawn are an indication of soil health and the presence of microbes. Most lawn mushrooms are harmless and completely seasonal. Read more about lawn mushrooms by following this link.
Controlling fungal outbreaks in the garden
Controlling fungal outbreaks is more about preventing the ideal conditions for fungal outbreaks than anything else. There is a variety of fungicides that one can spray but bear in mind that spraying for fungal diseases is more preventative than curative. Natural options include Coppercount and Margaret Roberts’ Organic Fungicide. Chemical options include Chronos, Funginex and Orius. However, remember to observe waiting periods for edibles when using fungicides. Here are some tips that will help you control fungal outbreaks:
- Where possible try to avoid watering in the evenings. As we already know wet conditions at night are the perfect incubator for fungal outbreaks. Rather water early in the morning, your plants will appreciate it a lot more. Also, try to avoid watering plants like tomatoes and pumpkin over the foliage rather water directly on the soil.
- Before spraying cut off any leaves that are badly affected. This will stop the spread and make spraying easier. Start spraying preventively as soon as the summer rain starts.
- Fungal outbreaks also occur when a plant is under stress from environmental factors such as erratic weather and heat waves. Aim to water more in warm weather and less in cooler weather.
So the next time you stumble on a weird mushroom or take a sip from a cold craft beer, you will have a better appreciation for one of nature’s more unusual miracles.